During the day, do you normally take breaks to just be?
Do you regularly stop to think, to brainstorm, to let your mind wander? When was the last time you got lost inside your thoughts—not the ruminating, ‘what-if’ thoughts, but those dreamy thoughts that take you places; the thoughts that spark ideas and breakthroughs and so many possibilities.
In Laura Vanderkam’s powerful parable, Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story About The Power of Priorities, the protagonist, Riley, rarely pauses. She leads a harried life. She assumes that going, going, going is productive and will help her get promoted. After all, she must attend to the new email she receives every minute, or her clients will get upset (and leave). After all, her consulting job is packed with travel and all kinds of demands that she must meet. Right away.
But all this frenetic doing doesn’t lead to success (or a satisfying personal life). Instead her team, boss and clients are unhappy with her—she’s close to getting fired. And her boyfriend and best friend feel like they’re always last on her list. Because they are. Because she regularly puts her work above everything and everyone else.
Carving out some space to think is the very thing Rylie needs—for her relationships, for her career, for herself.
Many of us can relate to Rylie. Because we feel like we can’t stop. I don’t have the luxury to stop, we think. So we try to sustain a pace that isn’t sustainable.
Pausing is powerful.
It’s powerful for our career because it helps us re-evaluate whether we’re doing the right thing or moving in the right direction.
Am I making the best use of my time?
Should I really be spending this long on this report?
Is attending that meeting necessary?
It also helps us come up with great ideas. Because creativity thrives in open spaces.
For the same reasons, pausing is powerful for our personal lives, too. It gives us the opportunity to check in with ourselves, to explore how we’re doing, and to figure out what we need. Because when we don’t stop to think, we’re like a freight train about to derail.
Like so many of us, Vanderkam, a journalist, speaker, and mom of four, has struggled to find time to think. But she’s found a creative solution: She does her best thinking during her daily runs. She doesn’t wear headphones, so she isn’t distracted.
“It’s just me and my thoughts,” she said.
On these runs, she might do everything from structuring a blog post, podcast, or book chapter to figuring out a plot point in her novel. “Many of the events in Juliet’s School of Possibilities came to me while I was running outside in late 2017,” Vanderkam said. “Sometimes I just let my mind wander, and see what comes to me.”
So how do you do likewise?
Vanderkam shared three tips on carving out time to actually think.
Take two “smokeless breaks” at work. “Just as someone might go outside to have a cigarette mid-morning and mid-afternoon, go outside and walk for 10-15 minutes,” Vanderkam said. If it’s sleeting and 28 degrees, she said, you could walk around the office parking garage. But try not to listen to playlists or podcasts or anything else. Give your mind the opportunity to roam free—and give yourself the gift of listening to what arises.
Stop tuning out. “It’s so easy to bust boredom by picking up the phone and checking headlines, email, and social media,” Vanderkam said. “Much of the time, we don’t even notice we’re doing it until we’re over on Instagram again.” Instead, she suggested putting our phones on airplane mode or turning them off for 20 minutes. Every time you find yourself reaching for your phone, take a deep breath, and take a break. “You might be surprised by what comes to you.”
Build in time. Vanderkam knows many people who get up early enough so they can sit with their morning cup of coffee for 15 to 20 minutes before they need to get the kids up or get themselves ready. For instance, you might use this time to simply sit and savor your coffee. Or you might journal about how you’re doing. Or you might put on calming music and see what thoughts come up.
When we take a break to simply think, we reconnect to ourselves. We give ourselves the opportunity to be thoughtful and deliberate. As Vanderkam writes in her inspiring book, “You are always choosing. Choose well.”
Taking a break helps us to choose well. It reminds us of what’s important, and it helps us to fill our lives with those very things.